Fall is a great time to get outside and explore, hike, hunt, fish and find some of the fungi that pop up this time of year. While some folks stop mushroom hunting after the morels are gone in the spring, those of us that know the bounty that fall mushrooms can provide will be out in the field in search of these fall delicacies.
The most common and easiest of the mushrooms to identify in the fall are chicken of the woods, oyster, puffball and shaggy mane mushrooms.
Chicken of the woods
Chicken of the woods is a fleshy shelf fungi that starts small or fingerlike and soon becomes fan-shaped with overlapping clusters stacked on top of one another. This mushroom has no real stem and its caps grow in large, individual “shelves” ranging from 2 to 10 inches across and up to 10 inches long — the fruiting body can get very large. The caps have whitish to yellowish pores on the underside with no gills.
This mushroom is easy to distinguish with its bright colors and shapes and is a good mushroom for the beginner collector as it has no look-alikes.
Colors range from red-orange to bright orange, yellow-orange and sulfur yellow or salmon when the fungi is young. The Flesh is thick, soft and full of water when fresh and will become tough and will lose some color and eventually crumble with age.
This large mushroom grows on dead stumps and logs of hardwoods or conifers and will sometimes appear on live trees or on roots and buried wood. This mushroom doesn’t need much moisture to fruit. It is a common fungi and will usually appear on the same stumps year after year showing up in late summer and fall.
Picking smaller, knobby caps as they first emerge are the best for eating. To harvest larger or older mushrooms, trim off the tender flesh near the outer edges of the cap, trim off any hard, woody flesh before cooking. When cut the tender flesh will leak a clear watery juice.
This variety tastes and looks much like lemony chicken when cooked. It is good sautéed, deep fried, baked or used in soups.
Oyster mushrooms are a delicious edible mushroom resembling an oyster. These mushrooms have a scallop or fan-shaped cap stretching from 2 to 10 inches across with some reaching up to 16 inches. The underside of this mushroom has tightly-spaced gills that run down its short stem. They will vary in color from whitish to light gray or brown.
Oysters are easy to identify, growing in shelf-like clusters they look like oyster shells stacked up on top of each other. Since oyster mushrooms grow in bunches, it makes them convenient to harvest by simply pulling them off the tree. These mushrooms grow on dying or dead hardwood trees, breaking them down and decomposing them. When the mushroom is old, the gills will turn brownish. At this stage the mushroom is not good for consumption.
Before preparing, cut the tough stems off and wash the mushrooms with water to remove dirt or bugs. Cleaned mushrooms can be sautéed, stir-fried, fried, or grilled and add a hint of a nutty-seafood flavor with a velvety texture to dishes. They are also good for drying and saving for later.
Shaggy mane is available in summer and fall and is a choice mushroom for eating.
Shaggy mane is distinctive and easy to recognize — growing solitary or in tight groups preferring hard ground and grassy areas with rich or disturbed soil. This mushroom has an elongated shaped, shaggy cap with brownish upturned scales and a straight semi-smooth stem.
It’s known as inky cap as the gills and oftentimes the caps digest themselves at maturity turning into an inky black fluid, dripping to the ground. This auto-digestion helps disperse spores into the air to produce a future crop.
This 2 to 6 inch tall mushroom fruits from the ground opposed to growing on trees. From pastures, roadsides, gardens, lawns and parking lots the shaggy main is both an urban and suburban mushroom — it is so widely distributed it can occur almost anywhere.
Not only are shags edible but delicious with a light taste and great texture. Sliced in half, dipped in egg batter and bread crumbs then sautéed makes a tasty snack or thrown into a skillet of eggs shags are hands-down delightful.
Get shaggy manes to the frying pan quickly as they deteriorate rapidly. These shouldn’t be kept overnight for use but can be frozen for future use.
Giant puffballs are sought-after delicacies occurring in late summer and fall. Puffballs are large, round to oblong “balls” that grow alone or in groups on the ground in pastures, meadows, grasslands, along roads and other open places. Puffballs may be baseball size or as large as a beach ball.
Young puffballs have a white, spongy interior, which is when they are prime for eating. As they age they become brown and discolored, at that time their skin will crack and trillions of powdery internal spores will be released.
Correctly identifying this mushroom is crucial but easy to do. Puffballs should have a thick, white flesh inside that resembles a marshmallow. Don’t eat anything with a brown, black, purple or yellow interior that looks like another mushroom outlined in it. Slicing the mushroom will help identify a puffball from a deadly amanita mushroom as the embryonic outline of a cap, gills and stem of the amanita will be revealed.
Puffballs should be used soon after harvesting and should be refrigerated. I think they have a rich, nutty flavor, but they do absorb flavors that they are cooked with. Puffballs are good fried in a batter, sautéed alone or with vegetables. There are many ways to prepare puffball and it can be preserved for future use.
It is very important to know what mushrooms you are collecting — some species of mushrooms in Nebraska are poisonous. It is the mushroom hunter’s responsibility to identify them accurately. The mushrooms described here are some of the most recognizable of the edibles. It is unwise to eat any mushroom when in doubt about genus and species. Two good books used for identifying mushrooms are: “Mushrooms Demystified” by David Arora, and “Mushrooming with Confidence” by Alexander Schwab.
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